At the beginning of August, Manila, Philippines hosted a number of international forums including foreign ministers of a number of states. These events played an important role in preparations for a number of summits (planned for the first half of November of this year) that are going to be held for nations directly or indirectly involved in the political, economic, and military-strategic affairs of the Asia-Pacific region (APR) in general and the sub-region of Southeast Asia in particular.
Although the dangerous situation on the Korean Peninsula has been touched upon during these events, a lion’s share of attention was paid to the South China Sea and matters related to the situation in that strategic area.
By the nature of the assessments of the problems observed in Southeast Asia and South Korea, as well as approaches to the resolution of this crisis, the participants in the Manila summits could be divided into three groups.
The first group consists of the ten ASEAN member countries, all of which together form the political and geographical region of “Southeast Asia”. Preparation for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the creation of ASEAN was among the most important topics in Manila.
The second included China, whose leaders consider the nation related directly to this sub-region. Finally, there were ministers from a number of countries that took part in the Manila events, referred to by Beijing and a number of other players as “extra-regional forces”.
That is an extremely remarkable geopolitical meme. On the one hand, it refers to countries that are not geographically related to Southeast Asia and that allegedly have nothing to do with the political problems that exist within the region in question. But on the other hand, the use of the word “forces” means that the countries described by this term are trying to project their influence into regions from afar.
Such countries in Beijing’s understanding are the US, followed by Japan and Australia. It should be noted, however, that the latter, while being a separate continent, is directly adjacent to Southeast Asia.
At the same time, India is also risking to find itself on the list of “extra-regional forces.” Foreign Minister of India Sushma Swaraj has also paid a visit to Manila. She participated in the preparatory activities for the next meetings between the nations participating in the East Asian Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum, which will also be held in early November in Manila.
And in fact, the confrontation that exists in Southeast Asia between China and “outsiders” constitutes the problematic situation in the sub-region, as well as the political game that has been unfolding there over the past 15 years.
In this context, the 10 countries of Southeast Asia are not being regarded as partners, but as a desired prize for the strongest geopolitical player to claim. At the same time, the rhetoric of the leading players is characterized by an emphatic politeness to ASEAN in general and its individual members in particular. Their importance in regional affairs is formally acknowledged, and external players are expressing their desire for developing mutually beneficial ties with them.
An illustration of the above mentioned trends were the deals adopted in Manila. For instance, the so-called Code of Conduct in the South China Sea signed by China and ASEAN members. Or a Joint Statement of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the United States, Japan and Australia that was announced after the discussions concluded.
As for the Code of Conduct, this project has been in the works for some time, since as early as the 1990s regional players have announced the need to develop certain binding norms of conduct in the South China Sea, where territorial claims of coastal states often lead to disputes.
But the decision to develop and adopt such a document was formally announced only in 2002 at the ASEAN + China summit and since then discussions of details was rather slow and painful. That is why it is not clear how far the practical implementation of the Code of Conduct will go after the initial signing.
In this regard, one can not fail to notice the skeptical comments appearing in the Western media about the significance of this document, since the initial differences in the positions occupied by China and its southern neighbors over the course of discussions was far too obvious. If China, claiming up to 90% of all South China Sea waters, doesn’t want any binding agreements, its southern partners would like to see more “limitations” in the document that is being developed.
However, in recent years, China have begun getting increasingly more flexible in its relations with ASEAN largely due to the fact that they’ve been seeking the support of those “extra-regional forces”, while Beijing seeks to exclude them from Southeast Asian affairs.
China continues to argue that what is happening in the South China Sea should be of no interest to Western powers since they are in no way related to it. That’s why the latter would adopt the above mentioned Joint Statement of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the United States, Japan and Australia.
It follows from its content that the authors are extremely concerned about issues of “ensuring the freedom of navigation and flights over the South China-Sea”, as well as compliance with relevant international legal acts.
The three ministers, while reaffirming their countries’ intention to “swim and fly wherever international law permits,” called on China and the Philippines to adopt last year’s decision by the Hague Arbitration Court, which effectively rejected China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The sharply negative attitude of the latter towards this decision is well known and has been analyzed before in detail.
Also observed are attempts to strengthen the (quasi) US-Japan-Australia alliance, the importance of which has been one again reaffirmed in Manila. This trend plays a pivotal role in the development of the situation in Southeast Asia. It’s should be remembered that two months earlier, a similar meeting of defense ministers of the above mentioned states was held in Singapore. Back then, those ministers would adopt a paper that would state their desire to develop cooperation in the areas of security and defense, both in trilateral and multilateral formats.
It’s curious that before the Singapore meetings and after the meetings in Manila, American destroyers would enter a 12-mile zone around the islands that Beijing believes to be an integral part of its territory. These provocations were designed to “show the military might of the US”.
However, these “demonstrations” will lead to no fundamental changes in the policies pursued by regional players, however, we can expect them to continue nonetheless.
In general, the results of the events held in early August in Manila have once again confirmed the opposing intentions of world powers engaged in the sub-region of Southeast Asia. And this face-off appears to show no signs of abating.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”